Running: Non-Profit CEO Success Story

Several weeks ago, I wrote about how runners make better employees. I’ve also discussed how running made a difference in my own career. My theory has long been that running can lead to career success. About 18 months ago I came across a study that proved my theory. Peter Limbach, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and Florian Sonnenberg, University of Cologne, tracked the performance of S&P 1500 companies and the fitness level of their CEOs from 2001 to 2011. CEOs were defined as fit if they completed a marathon. They concluded, “Firms run by fit CEOs have significantly higher firm values both on univariate and multivariate level. Regression results suggest that firm value is almost 5% higher on average. It’s between 8% and 10% higher when CEOs fitness is particularly important. Such cases include CEOs with above-median age and above-median tenure as well as CEOs with high workload. (the article and link to the complete study can be found at

I’m not convinced that only marathon running will make someone better at their job, but the training process required and the sense of accomplishment a marathon finish provides, probably does give marathoners a leg-up (pardon the pun). I remember when I had to speak in front of a large group for the first time – probably in 7th or 8th grade. Someone told me to imagine the audience naked. I guess that’s supposed to make you feel superior? (I didn’t do it; I went to Catholic school and was afraid it might be a sin). But once I ran a marathon, I did feel a sense of accomplishment that put me at ease with even the most difficult people (in my head I’d be saying, “sure, but you’ve never ran a marathon!”). And of course, as Limbach and Sonnenberg discuss in their paper, “literature suggests that fitness moderates stress and positively affects cognitive functions and performance.”

I do know a lot of people who have never run a marathon, but are runners, and feel that running is what helps them manage stress and lead their organizations. One of those people is Tom Toronto, CEO of Bergen County’s United Way (and yes, my old boss!).

Tom has done an amazing job of reinventing United Way here in Bergen County and has kept his organization financially viable and responding to critical community needs while workplace-giving campaigns diminished. The traditional United Way model of collecting funds through workplace-giving and funding a network of non-profit agencies addressing a variety of community needs was no longer working. The amount of money available through the allocation process was shrinking because donors wanted to decide for themselves which agencies received their donations, and agencies, as well, were doing a better job fundraising on their own.

Bergen County’s United Way stopped funding agencies and put their money into NJ 2-1-1 a community information and referral service that helps people find solutions to personal needs by connecting them to resources in their community like day care facilities, shelters, affordable housing units, social services, employment training programs, senior services, medical insurance, and more. BCUW also became a direct service organization, by helping individuals in need through their Compassion Fund. But a community needs assessment also revealed that the biggest problem facing Bergen County was affordable housing, particularly affordable housing for people with physical and developmental disabilities. They are addressing these needs through their Housing Works program in partnership with Madeline Corporation. So far BCUW/Madeline has developed 228 affordable housing units in Northern New Jersey and have more in development.

I had lunch with Tom recently and asked about his organization’s success when I have consulted with other United Way organizations that have not been able to respond as well to the changing fundraising landscape and community needs. Okay, he doesn’t attribute it all to running, but he did said it certainly “clears the head and allows the mind to wander…in a good way.” He also noted that it’s a great form of exercise when traveling.

Tom runs several local races a year, including BCUW’s own PSE&G Teterboro Airport 5k (scheduled for July 16 this year; to register go to: This race is an event that I developed for United Way back in 1998, but Tom was the real founder of the event. The original Teterboro Run actually occurred several years earlier. Tom reminisced, “the winner got a ride in the Goodyear Blimp.”

Tom has been with Bergen County’s United Way for close to 30 years, so I think it’s a safe to say that the organization’s success is in line with the results of Limbach and Sonnebberg’s research. The community is fortunate to have a United Way CEO that runs!

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L-R: World Record Holder, (the late) Toshiko d’Elia, me, and Tom Toronto at the 2001 Teterboro Airport 5k.



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